Thank you, California Lawyer, for this honor. On December 2, 2016, there was a music and art event in an old warehouse in Oakland. This “artist colony” was an unpermitted space where people were living, and “happenings” took place. About 50-60 people were present when, at around 11:20 p.m., a fire broke out. The building, filled with pianos, wood carvings, tapestries and other combustibles rapidly fed the hungry fire and 36 bright, young, promising free spirited souls were overcome with toxic smoke, couldn’t find their way out through the unlit and unmarked exits, and died in what has become known as the “Ghostship fire.”
Many of the finest lawyers throughout California, who were approached for representation, said there was no way to hold the City of Oakland and PG&E accountable, and turned these cases down. We were undeterred and willing to take on the fight even if they said we couldn’t win. These 36 young adults at the threshold of their lives, along with their grieving families, called out for justice and accountability and we took that call.
This case required all my life experience, education, and decades of “figuring it out.” As a young man, I worked dirty, hot, tiring jobs in construction to fund my studies. As a young lawyer, I renovated two old San Francisco buildings including our Market Street headquarters, learning about electrical systems, transformers, voltage drop, metering, and building/electric codes involved in old buildings. So much of what I bring to the table is practical knowledge. Mary Alexander and I literally dug through the rubble and I used “old school” methods to understand and map out the faulty electrical services. Using my Georgetown Law degree, I “went into the rabbit hole” for 2 solid weeks and researched the s#!t out of the Oakland Municipal Code, State Fire Code, and CPUC regulations to develop the Complaint against the City and PG&E with Bob Bale. Tom Brandi and Brian Malloy used their decades of public entity law knowledge to doggedly drive the case against the City with several arduous, but successful, trips to the court of appeals.
Mary, Bob, Brendan Way, and I relentlessly pursued PG&E through multiple depositions, and a mountain of documents. Eventually, we found a few key documents, with a few critical sentences, to support our allegations that PG&E had violated the CPUC regulations and knew that multiple businesses were drawing too much power through one meter, making the piecework, often un-permitted, electrical system a tragedy waiting to happen.
I was able to focus our energies, using my practical knowledge, to pull these facts from the ashes and build a case with these great lawyers, and many others, including Bobby Thompson, Sophia Acherman, Jennifer Fiore, and Sandra Ribera-Speed. The Executive Committee, Mary, Tom, Bob, Bobby, and I, never considered defeat an option and, in the end, we honored these 36 beautiful lives, and their families, through accountability. We did what they said couldn’t be done. As Margaret Mead said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.